Recent rhetoric highlights need for linguistic tolerance

a/Editorial/Opinion by

The issue of the flight of anglophones from Quebec returned to the forefront following the release of a study that found that over half of Quebec’s anglophone and allophone (those with a mother tongue that is neither English nor French) population has considered leaving Quebec in the past year. The study, commissioned by the CBC and released Feb. 25, found that political uncertainty was the major reason for the doubts, citing the language divide as one of the main sources of contention. In thinking about language issues this election, we must ensure that policies encourage the vitality of the French language without exercising vindictively punitive measures on the use of English.

With about 50 per cent of McGill’s population declaring English as their first language and 32 per cent declaring a language other than English or French as their mother tongue, this issue certainly touches McGill students. For those approaching graduation, the consideration of whether to leave or stay in Quebec after McGill is not a new one, especially considering that 47 per cent of McGill students officially declare residency as outside of Quebec, according to statistics from Fall 2013. After three or four years of growing to love the vibrant Montreal city life, with its multitude of cultural offerings and opportunities, many of us would like to stay in the city past the conclusion of our McGill degree. However, the dire job outlook for anglophones poses a major challenge for those hoping to stay, as the law requires that French be the official workplace language of businesses with more than 50 people, a number that the provincial government has expressed interest in further lowering.

While we recognize that as outsiders, much of the burden falls on English-speaking students to learn French and educate ourselves more deeply about the province, the reality is that the provincial government is increasingly and worryingly encroaching on the English language. The same week that the CBC study was released, the Quebec minister responsible for the charter of the French language, Diane De Courcy, spoke strongly against institutional bilingualism in Quebec, using the common bilingual greeting “Bonjour-hi” as an example of the “unacceptable slide” towards bilingualism in commercial spaces and across the province. This statement is indicative of a larger trend, particularly with the current Parti Québécois (PQ) government, and one that has the potential of continuing to push away people who would otherwise be strongly inclined to stay and contribute to the province.

One of the issues that De Courcy’s statement highlights is the rising animosity in the way language issues in the province are addressed. This polarizing rhetoric often spreads to students’ interactions in the city, for example, with vendors downtown refusing to speak in French to students with an accent, thus limiting their opportunities to practice the language. There appears to be a disconnect between the idea that newcomers should learn French and the supports provided to them. While the onus remains on the students to learn the language, the provincial government should play a role in promoting integration by working towards removing the obstacles—legal or social—that often prevent them from truly integrating with Quebec.

While Quebec has only French as its official language, English has certainly shaped important aspects of the province, including Montreal itself, well-regarded as one of the largest bilingual cities in the world. Current French language policies stem from longstanding tensions and historical concerns for the survival of francophone culture in the province, but English cannot be dissociated from the province’s cultural wealth.  As Quebecers head to the polls on April 7, the tensions that accompany the language divide are bound to continue at the forefront of provincial discussion. With this in mind, it will be important to remember the value of mutual respect in these debates.